'The Empress' review – this epic royal drama conveys an important part of British Asian history

Read our two-star review of The Empress, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, now in performances at Lyric Hammersmith to 28 October.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

In 1887, Queen Victoria dug her heels in when she formed a friendship with Abdul Karim, a young Indian Muslim man sent as a ‘gift’ for her Golden Jubilee who became her munshi (teacher of Hindi and Indian culture) and confidant. This relationship, which was hushed up after Victoria’s death in 1901, was explored by Shrabani Basu in her 2010 book Victoria & Abdul, which was adapted into the 2017 film starring Judi Dench. Tanika Gupta’s play The Empress, first produced by the RSC in 2013, also details this relationship.

This revival is also produced by the RSC and Gupta’s play attempts to place this royal anecdote against a wider social context, featuring a network of characters who meet aboard a ship sailing from India to England and their intertwined destinies as they settle on this cold, unwelcoming island.

Set over a 13-year period and featuring all levels of society, it’s epic in scope, but despite the nearly three-hour running time, it feels as if it’s only just scratched the surface. Gupta’s writing is unevenly paced and all-too on-the-nose, like an entry-level primer to British Asian history filled with stock characters.

Pooja Ghai’s production has some lyrical elements, set against a golden horseshoe framing the apparatus of a ship, and a ‘royal box’ in the corner (designed by Rosa Maggiora). The performances, however, are mixed and the ensemble struggles to come together in a unified whole.

As an underdog story, the heroine is clever and inquisitive young ayah Rani who is heartlessly abandoned by her employers as soon as they arrive in London. Tanya Katyal is convincingly plucky but the ‘young adult’ style of writing doesn’t allow her to fully mine the depths.

After she’s assaulted and impregnated by her new master, she and her baby are conveniently taken in by kindly madam lascar Sally (Nicola Stephenson) and her wise friend Firoza (Avita Jay). The subsequent romance with lascar Hari (Aaron Gill) feels contrived.

There are stronger elements in the second half, including the establishment of a home for abandoned ayahs funded by Christian charity, where the rescued ayahs, when alone, make fun of the performances of humility they’re required to put on for benefactors. Simon Rivers is warmly paternal Dadabhai Naroji, Britain’s first Asian MP and Rani’s new boss, whose life would be deserving of its own play.

Alexandra Galbraith is an icily imperious Queen Victoria who enjoys the idea of being seen as a cougar and isn’t given to philosophising. Raj Bajaj’s Karim is ultimately more sincere and not quite as opportunistic as he’s shown to be in the film. Their relationship culminates in a fantasy sequence in which the Empress can’t visit India, so India comes to the Empress in a colourful, touristic impression – such an important visitor would be shielded from anything too real.

This part of British Asian history is extremely important and should certainly be taught in schools, but for drama to thrive, it needs more dynamism and a greater emotional connection.

The Empress is at the Lyric Hammersmith through 28 October. Book The Empress tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Empress (Photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC)

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